As part of our ongoing blog series highlighting the learnings of our Justice Solutions tour, Jesuit Social Services’ CEO JULIE EDWARDS explores the two-year training provided to contact officers in Norway’s justice system, which focuses on engagement and relationship building.

Jesuit Social Services’ Sally Parnell (right) and Associate Professor Elisabeth Fransson

As we enter the lobby of the Ministry of Justice Lillstrom we notice a rack of T-shirts with the slogan ‘if nothing changes, nothing changes’. It seems an apt reflection of the attitude and cultural milieu we have been witnessing and of hearing of in our discussions with people in the Justice system here in Norway.

Though not a perfect system, and prison is still prison, there is a palpable climate of careful and liberal thinking, aiming to provide normalising interventions and least-restrictive regimes in detention. A country of this size and relative social stability and homogeneity has its advantages – and in particular a post WWII tradition of establishing a strong welfare state – universal child support, free health care, free education etc. It is an attitude of treating citizens equally and fairly.

We met today with Associate Professor Elisabeth Fransson. Elisabeth is a researcher, academic and sociologist who spends some of her time training prison personnel through the University College of Norwegian Correctional Service and the rest of her time researching the youth facilities at Eidsvoll and Bergen. Her research is qualitative – seeking to identify the factors in the interactive relationship between young people and prison contact officers that are leading to change.

We had time discussing the training undertaken by contact officers – currently a minimum of two years and aiming to become a three year Bachelor degree in the near future. Half of the course involves working in prison. Entrants are screened for life experience and positive, humanistic attitudes.

Elisabeth spoke of employees being paid to undertake the course – the only paid students in the Norway system. This incentivises the course and entry is competitive and sought after…the status of this professional career is respected in the community.

“They [staff] want to help people, and they have respect for prisoners,” said Elisabeth.

We also briefly talked about the child welfare/child protection system and the principles that underpin this work. While this system is described as stressed and under-resourced, interestingly, and consistent with what is happening in prison settings, staff supporting children in the Out of Home Care context are expected to hold a Bachelor degree in child care studies. Intervening in the best and most skilled way we can at this point is so crucial, given we know the significant correlation between young people in child protection systems and their risk of segueing into the youth justice system.

A big part of prison officer training was described as equipping new staff with capacity to focus on engagement and building relationships with young people.

Whilst the role must focus on ensuring a safe environment in detention, the emphasis of the contact officer role is geared toward links with post-release services and preparing young people for reintegration into community. During the visits we’ve made to both Eidsvoll Youth Facility and Halden Prison (a high-security adult facility) we witnessed positive regard of prisoners and confident personnel, who are calm and enjoying their roles.

Victoria could take a leaf from this book.